Culture and Conflict

Culture and Conflict

Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Culture and Conflict, written by Michelle LeBaron for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess


Understanding each other may mean, "reorganizing [our] thinking...and few people are willing to risk such a radical move." -- Edward T. Hall


Cultural messages, simply, are what everyone in a group knows that outsiders do not know. They are a series of lenses that shape our perceptions, interpretations, boundaries, and values.


Anyone involved in a cross-cultural conflict. This includes not only people from different countries, but also people from different gender, age, ethnic, religious, regional, even different professional groups. (One might speak of the engineering culture or the business culture, for example.)


Culture is an essential part of conflict and conflict resolution. Culture is a  powerful and often unconscious influence on our perceptions and our behavior.

How Cultures Work

Cultures are a shifting, dynamic set of starting points that orient us in particular ways. Everyone has multiple cultures that dictate what is considered "normal." When others do not meet our expectations, it is often a cue that their culture is different. We may mistake differences for evidence of bad faith or lack of common sense, without realizing that "common sense" is cultural. What is common sense to one group may be counterintuitive (or even stupid or evil)  to another.

Some implications of the cultural dimensions of conflict include the following:

  1. Cultural generalizations (beliefs, for instance,  that Americans are loud or that Italians are good lovers) are not the whole story. Even if they are sometimes true,  the cultural norms of a given group does not predict the behavior of an individual, who may not conform. There is no substitute for building relationships and getting to know people as individuals.
  2. Culture is constantly in flux and cultural groups adapt in unpredictable ways. Therefore, no comprehensive description can be formulated about a particular group.
  3. Culture is under the surface -- it is not easy to access these symbolic levels, since they are largely outside our awareness. Therefore, it is important to use many ways of learning about culture, especially indirect ways, i.e. stories, metaphors, and rituals.
  4. Culture becomes important depending on context. When a cultural identity is threatened, it's importance increases.

Culture and Conflict: Connections

For any conflict that touches us where we're vulnerable, where we make meaning or influence our identities, there is always a cultural component. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, is not just about land - it's also about identity. Conflicts between teenagers and parents are shaped by generational culture and conflicts between spouses are influenced by gender culture. Cultures shared by dominant groups often seem to be "normal" -- "the way things are done" to the dominant group, but are less obvious to other minority groups.  We only notice the effect of cultures that are different from our own.

Culture and Conflict: How to Respond

Cultural fluency is key for disentangling cultural conflicts. It includes awareness of:

  • Communication,
  • Approaches to meaning making,
  • Identities
  • Ways of managing conflict


Communication determines how we relate with others. Context, personality, culture and mood all influence communication, as does our relationship with others. Do they understand what we are trying to say? Are they listening? Are we listening? Do their responses show that they understand? Is the mood positive? Is there trust between us? Are there divergent goals or fundamentally different ways of seeing the world? Are they assuming things about us or what we say that are different from what we intend to be or say?

Even with good will, miscommunication often occurs.  In conflict it is much more likely to occur, and it creates a dangerous reinforcing loop:  conflict distorts and blocks good communication, then poor communication aggravates the conflict. Misunderstandings can come from different assumptions about "normal" and "good behavior, different conceptions of time, space and personal responsibility. Nonverbal communication is also important, and can vary widely between cultures. We tend to look for nonverbal cues when verbal messages are unclear. But gestures, posture, silence, spacial relations, emotional expression, touch, and physical appearance can mean different things to different cultures. While some elements of nonverbal communication are consistent across cultures,  (for example, research has shown that pleasure, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and surprise are expressed similarly around the world). which emotions are acceptable to display, and by whom is not consistent. For instance, it may be acceptable in the United States for women to show fear, but not anger, and for men to display anger, but not fear.

Identity and Meaning

We are meaning-making creatures.  Humans tell stories that preserve our sense of self and give us purpose. Identity and meaning are part of every human life. If we make fundamentally different meaning of the world, then all of our attempts to improve communication  will fail because we cannot address deeper differences that fuel conflicts. When worldviews are not acknowledged, stronger parties in conflict may advertently or inadvertently impose their worldviews on others.

The imposition of another worldview can entirely destroy a way of life. Consider your response to someone with an idea that seems "outrageous." Those who challenge the dominant worldview are often dismissed with a joke or puzzled head shaking, and are rarely invited to explain their views. If the majority suspended their disbelief and inquired further, they might find some important nuggets in the "far-out" suggestion. As people become aware of the existence of different worldviews, the other side's "outrageous" ideas become sensible when seen from their point of view. By looking at the stories, rituals, myths, and metaphors used by a group, we can learn about group members' identities and meanings. Shared meanings may arise as people create new stories, design new rituals, and find inclusive metaphors.

Managing Conflict

Ways of managing conflict also vary across cultures. For those accustomed to subdued, calm discussion, an emotional exchange among family members may seem threatening. However, the family may see their exchange as a normal airing of differing views. Is an event a skirmish, a provocation, an escalation, or a mere trifle? The answer depends on the perspective. In multicultural contexts, parties' expectations of how conflict should be addressed may vary, further escalating an existing situation. As with communication, different understandings of time, space, nonverbal cues, equality, gender, etc. can strongly influence negotiation. Everything from when to take breaks during a meeting, to how much eye contact to use can vary according to culture. So too will be the topics and pace of discussions and concessions, what to acknowledge to whom and when, and how to go about identifying or crafting a solution.


One common cultural difference is between what is commonly called "high-context" and "low-context" cultures. These terms refer to the degree to which speakers use nonverbal cues to convey their messages. High-context cultures communicate with messages that assume a lot--they depend on an understanding of the context of the message in order for the message's meaning to be understood. Low-context cultures spell everything out in the message itself. They stand alone more easily, without depending on a knowledge of the context. A high-context message of disagreement might be expressed to a spouse by the words chosen or the way they are spoken, even if no disagreement is explicitly voiced.

All of us engage in both high-context and low-context communication. There are times we "say what we mean, and mean what we say." This is low-context communication. At other times, we may infer but not speak. This is high-context communication.

As people communicate, they move between high and low context. It is important to understand whether nonverbal or verbal cues are the most prominent. Without this understanding, those who tend to use high-context starting points may be looking for shades of meaning that are not present, and those who prefer low-context communication may miss important nuances of meaning.

Individualism and communitarianism is a second dimension important to culture and conflict resolution. In communitarian settings, group members are rewarded for allegiance to group values and cooperation. Individualist patterns involve ideas of the self as self-directed and autonomous. Children raised in this milieu are rewarded for initiative, personal achievement, and leadership. They may be just as close to their families as a child raised in a communitarian setting, but they may feel more free to make independent choices. Duty, honor, and deference to authority are less prominent for those with individualist starting points than communitarian ones.


People need to be aware of cultural differences whenever they interact with people from other cultures. It becomes especially important when these people are involved in a conflict, where misunderstandings become more likely and potentially more costly. But cultural awareness and fluency is important in everyday interactions as well, in order to avoid conflict, and to get the most out of a cross-cultural relationship.

Links to Related Articles:

Identity (Inter-Group) Conflicts